Africa File

A biweekly analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics.   Each edition begins "At a Glance." Country-specific updates follow.{{authorBox.message}}

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Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.

The Salafi-jihadi movement is strengthening across several regions of Africa and will grow more dangerous in 2020 if current trends continue. This comes as the US seeks to limit its presence on the continent and shift its focus toward great-power competition with China and Russia—even though this competition is playing out in Africa. US resources are also focused on managing extremely high tensions with Iran. These dynamics place the US and its allies at risk of strategic surprise from the growing African Salafi-jihadi threat, particularly if intelligence, military, and diplomatic assets decrease.

Americans have a false sense of security that the African Salafi-jihadi threat is local. Local Salafi-jihadi groups underpin the global movement. Their sanctuaries in remote areas and in failed or failing states allow them to train, experiment, and prepare to take their capabilities onto the global stage.

These dynamics are playing out in East Africa, where the Somalia-based al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab killed three Americans on January 5 in its first attack on US forces in Kenya. Al Shabaab already poses a severe threat to Kenya—a regional economic hub with key industries, particularly tourism, that are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. But al Shabaab has also demonstrated its greater ambitions by reliably aligning itself with the goals and rhetoric of al Qaeda leadership and seeking capabilities that could someday allow it to execute an attack outside the Horn of Africa.

The Salafi-jihadi movement is similarly ascendant in West Africa, particularly in the western Sahel region that includes Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Militants aligned with both an al Qaeda affiliate and the Islamic State are growing more lethal and may soon establish de facto control over a large swath of this region. The tactics that these groups use to overrun military bases could someday enable attacks in Western capitals.

The rapid deterioration of security in West Africa is happening as the US Department of Defense considers withdrawing most, if not all, US troops from the region. This reduction could include ceasing support for the French counterterrorism mission in the Sahel, shuttering a US drone base in Niger, and reducing intelligence assets dedicated to the region. A new strategy for countering the Salafi-jihadi movement is needed, but a blanket withdrawal—paired with losing our awareness of what is going on—is certainly not the solution to a complex and worsening threat.

The US foreign policy community’s pivot to great-power competition creates a false dichotomy: Geopolitical competition and the Salafi-jihadi threat are not separate challenges but deeply connected ones. The Libya conflict is internationalizing. Foreign support—and now, direct foreign participation—is a key driver of a war now at risk of descending into unprecedented violence. Such conflict and grievance are exactly the conditions that, time and again, allow the Salafi-jihadi movement to manifest and grow. The gains that Libyans, Americans, and many others won against the Islamic State and its ilk in Libya in recent years will soon vanish if this regional conflict continues to tear Libya apart.

 

Read Further On:

At A Glance

East Africa

North Africa

West Africa

 

 

At A Glance

Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding as the global counter–Islamic State coalition contemplates its next steps after destroying the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate and the US shifts its strategic focus to competition with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea. US forces in Iraq temporarily halted counter–Islamic State operations on January 5 following a US strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. The uncertain future of US forces’ presence in Iraq follows a disruption in US counter–Islamic State operations in Syria in the fall of 2019. Indicators of the Islamic State’s return are apparent in both Iraq and Syria, however, as the group recovers from the death of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other senior officials in late October. The US administration also seeks to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan and is reportedly close to a cease-fire deal with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, the Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas in which previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement is positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations. The Salafi-jihadi movement is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, on the counteroffensive in Libya, and stalemated in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. However, conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents in the coming year.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April, will continue to fuel the Salafi-jihadi comeback, possibly allowing the Islamic State or al Qaeda to regain some of the territory they controlled before major operations against them from 2016 to 2019. The Islamic State’s comeback in Libya is part of its global effort to reconstitute capabilities after military defeats, an effort that the group’s late leader, Baghdadi, sought to galvanize in a September audio message. Stalemates in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries, and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command (AFRICOM) is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great-power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness—such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown. French exhortations in the wake of the death of 13 French commandos in Mali in late November may increase European support for the G5 Sahel in the near term. 

The Salafi-jihadi movement currently has four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other place is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

 

East Africa

Al Qaeda–affiliate al Shabaab conducted its first attack against US forces in Kenya, killing three Americans. The January 5 attack targeted Manda Bay Airfield and the adjoining Camp Simba, which houses US forces providing training to Kenyan and other regional troops. The base is located in Lamu County, a coastal Kenyan region that borders Somalia and includes parts of the Boni Forest, historically an al Shabaab haven.

The attack signals an inflection in al Shabaab’s ability to strike hard targets in Kenya. It likely required significant planning. Attackers using direct and indirect fire and possibly a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) penetrated the base’s perimeter before being repelled by American and Kenyan troops. The attack also damaged American aircraft. US AFRICOM East Africa Response Force deployed troops to reinforce Manda Bay.

Kenyan police also arrested three men on suspicion of terrorist activities for attempting to enter a British Army training camp in a county north of Nairobi on January 5, the same day as the Manda Bay attack. The men were unarmed but carrying camera equipment, indicating that they may have been surveilling the base for a future attack.

The Manda Bay attack is the latest in a surge of al Shabaab attacks targeting foreign forces in the Horn of Africa in line with al Qaeda’s overarching objectives. Al Shabaab warned in October that such operations would increase, citing an October attack on a base housing UN and African Union personnel in Somalia and September attacks on a US-Somali airbase and an Italian military convoy in Mogadishu.[i] Al Shabaab media, other al Qaeda affiliates, and al Qaeda’s General Command heavily the September 30 raid targeting the US-Somali airbase.

Al Shabaab’s claim for the Manda Bay attack also connected it to a broader al Qaeda campaign. The group claimed the attack as part of the “Jerusalem will never be Judaized” campaign, a designation it also used for a January 2019 attack in Nairobi, Kenya.[ii] Other al Qaeda affiliates have also claimed attacks under this campaign.[iii] Al Shabaab subsequently promoted the Manda Bay attack as a sign of American vulnerability and alleged that US forces would abandon their Kenyan partners as they did the Syrian Kurdish forces.[iv] This statement sought to contest the legitimacy of the Kenyan and American forces by accusing the Kenyan forces of committing human rights abuses and erroneously accusing AFRICOM of downplaying the number of casualties incurred at Manda Bay. Al Shabaab also threatened to attack tourists in Kenya.

The Manda Bay attack was likely not an overture to Iran following the January 3 killing of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in Iraq as some have suggested. An al Shabaab spokesman stated directly that the Lamu attack was not related to Soleimani’s killing.

Al Shabaab has escalated attacks in the Kenyan-Somali border region in the past four months. Al Shabaab militants attacked a telecommunications mast in Garissa County on January 7—a tactic used to disrupt communications to facilitate other attacks. A subsequent shootout between militants and police killed four children. The uptick in attacks includes a December 6 raid on a passenger bus that killed 11 people, including seven police officers, in Wajir County. The group has also emphasized attacks targeting Kenyan Christians.[i]

Al Shabaab has simultaneously escalated its rate of spectacular attacks in Somalia, including the highest-casualty bombing in Mogadishu since October 2017. Such attacks are intended to delegitimize the Somali Federal Government (SFG) and stoke instability at both the national and local levels. Al Shabaab conducted a VBIED attack in Mogadishu on December 28 that killed at least 90 people and injured dozens. Al Shabaab offered condolences to victims and admitted responsibility for the attack, which it said targeted a Turkish-Somali military convoy.[ii] The group accused security personnel of using civilians as human shields and has subsequently released its own assessment of the attack to challenge the SFG’s official account.[iii]

The December 28 attack follows al Shabaab’s first effective attack on a hotel in Mogadishu since February 2019. The group besieged the SYL Hotel near the Somali presidential palace, killing five people. Al Shabaab also conducted a VBIED attack that killed four people at a security checkpoint near the presidential palace on January 8.

Outside the capital, al Shabaab conducted an attack that may have been intended to stoke unrest in a region preparing for fraught elections. The group conducted a VBIED attack near a hotel in Galkayo, the capital of the Galmudug region in north-central Somalia, on December 21. The attack struck a military convoy and may have been intended to kill a Somali general.

Forecast: Al Shabaab will attempt a spectacular attack in Kenya in the first half of 2020. The group will also sustain a campaign of bombings in Mogadishu and elsewhere as part of a broader campaign to disrupt the planned 2020 elections. (As of January 9, 2020)

 

 

North Africa

Libya’s civil war is becoming increasingly international and escalating toward violence on the scale of the 2011 uprising against longtime leader Muammar Qaddafi. Foreign involvement—notably Turkish, Russian, and Emirati—has intensified in recent weeks and months. A joint cease-fire call from the Turkish and Russian presidents signals an effort to cut a deal that will secure their interests, but it is unlikely to stop the fighting. This conflict will not have a clear victor and may devolve into grinding urban combat in Libya’s populous cities, doing great harm to civilians and setting conditions for rejuvenating the latent Salafi-jihadi threat.

The Libya conflict has two main axes. The Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar, controls the country’s east and has a presence in the south. The LNA’s primary backers are Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The LNA launched an offensive to seize Tripoli, Libya’s capital, in April 2019. This offensive has stalled despite Emirati air support and the deployment of hundreds of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries.

The LNA’s opponent is the UN-recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) and associated militias, many from the northwestern city of Misrata. Turkey has provided drones and armored vehicles to support the GNA in Tripoli throughout 2019, helping to stall Haftar’s offensive.

Foreign actors are pursuing a broad range of interests inside Libya. Several Middle Eastern states are competing to shape the future of governance in the Muslim world, particularly the role of political Islam. This competition, typified by the election and subsequent removal of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi as Egypt’s president in 2012–13, pits Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey. Economic interests are also at stake in Libya; Turkey seeks to protect an agreement with the GNA on offshore drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean, for example. Russia is pursuing various that include acquiring military basing, renewing or establishing economic agreements, and strengthening regional alliances.

Turkey is deploying troops to Libya in an attempt to alter the balance of power and achieve a cease-fire. The Turkish Parliament authorized President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to deploy troops to Libya on January 2. Turkey began preparing to deploy advisers and technical experts, with officials emphasizing that the troops will serve a coordinating and advising role rather than entering combat. Turkey may have already begun transporting Syrian militia fighters to Libya, though a proliferation of altered videos online complicates assessing these militias’ presence or strength.

Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are attempting to broker a truce in Libya that will secure their interests in the country and prevent escalation that would harm Turkish-Russian relations in other areas. They called for a cease-fire by midnight on January 12 and urged belligerents to reenter negotiations. Erdogan and Putin met in Istanbul on January 8 for the ceremonial opening of the TurkStream pipeline, which will transport Russian natural gas to Europe via Turkey.

The Russo-Turkish initiative is overtaking a parallel European effort to resolve the conflict. Leaders and diplomats from Britain, Germany, France, and Italy have also sought to engage with Libyan parties while condemning foreign interference in the conflict. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte sought to convene Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al Serraj in Rome on January 8, but Serraj reportedly canceled his meeting with Conte after learning of Haftar’s prior meeting.

The level of violence is increasing in Libya. An airstrike by the LNA or an LNA backer struck cadets at a military academy in Tripoli on January 4, killing and wounding dozens. Carnage of this kind is unusual in Libya’s war and may signal a shift toward higher casualty attacks in civilian areas. This strike came two days after the Turkish Parliament’s troop deployment approval and may have been intended as either punishment or deterrence for the GNA and its allies.

Haftar’s forces are attempting to consolidate gains before the January 12 deadline and may continue fighting afterward. The LNA captured Sirte on the central Libyan coast on January 7 and has continued to advance westward toward Misrata, where the majority of GNA-aligned militias originate. The LNA also announced the extension of a no-fly zone to Maitiga, Tripoli’s only functioning airport, on January 8. The LNA’s advance toward Misrata may be intended to draw Misratan militias away from the Tripoli front line to allow the LNA to advance there. It is unclear how Russia and Turkey would enforce a cease-fire if fighting continues after January 12.

Conflict in Sirte may create conditions for Islamic State militants to return to the city. The movement of militants in and around the city has been reported intermittently since US-backed Libyan forces ousted the Islamic State from the city in 2016.

Forecast: The January 12 cease-fire declared by Turkey and Russia is unlikely to hold. The most likely case is a grinding stalemate in a configuration similar to the current front lines. It is possible but less likely that the LNA will claim an initial victory by luring Misratan forces away from Tripoli and securing defections among Tripoli-based militias. This outcome would set conditions for insurgency, likely very quickly. Either branch—the stalemate or the LNA advance—preserves and worsens the conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. (As of January 9, 2020)

 

 

 

West Africa

Security is collapsing and Salafi-jihadi groups are growing more lethal in the western Sahel, particularly in northern and central Mali, northern Burkina Faso, and western Niger. Salafi-jihadi militants conducted a series of large-scale attacks on military bases in Mali and Niger in late 2019. Civilian casualties have spiked in Burkina Faso in early 2019, and a humanitarian crisis is also worsening rapidly in the country.

The al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) affiliate in the Sahel—Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM)—is capitalizing on rising violence in northern Burkina Faso by promoting itself as the defender of local populations. JNIM claimed a December 26 attack on Burkinabe soldiers as an act of retaliation for an army patrol’s alleged killing of 17 Fulani people in Soum Province on December 24.  JNIM claimed that civilians sought the militants’ help, indicating that the group seeks to build legitimacy to support its overall effort to install its own form of governance in the area. Security force abuses are a of support for Salafi-jihadi groups in northern Burkina Faso.

The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is increasing the lethality and brutality of its attacks while reaffirming its connection to Islamic State leadership. A December 24 ISGS attack was one of the deadliest in Burkina Faso’s history. Raids on a town and military base in Soum Province killed 35 civilians, mostly women, whom Salafi-jihadi militants rarely target in this way. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province claimed the attack as part of the Islamic State’s “revenge invasion” campaign, a multi-affiliate campaign launched in retaliation for the killing of the Islamic State’s leader and spokesman in October.  The December 24 attack, paired with a January 4 roadside bombing of a bus carrying students, have caused a dramatic spike in Burkinabe civilian casualties in recent weeks.

The December 24 ISGS attack follows recent devastating ISGS attacks on hard targets in Niger and Mali. ISGS conducted the deadliest attack ever on the Nigerien army on December 11, killing more than 70 soldiers at a remote base near the Malian border.

ISGS’s and JNIM’s strategies may be diverging in northern Burkina Faso, and JNIM’s emphasis on defending civilians may also be intended to distinguish it from ISGS. The two groups are competitors that also deconflict and at times coordinate. They are also reportedly vying for influence and recruits in central Mali.

Salafi-jihadi groups are attriting local governance by targeting community leaders in the border region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Militants killed and kidnapped several religious and community leaders since late November in northeastern Mali and western Niger. Militants also attacked security forces escorting election officials in western Niger in late December.

Attacks on military bases continued in northern Mali. Likely JNIM militants fired rockets at a base used by UN, French, and Malian forces in northern Mali’s Kidal region on January 9. The assault wounded 20 people, including 18 Chadian peacekeepers. For more on recent high-casualty attacks on military positions in Mali, see the November 13 Africa File

Forecast: Salafi-jihadi groups will begin to establish governing institutions—such as courts—in the tri-border area in the next six months. ISGS’s attacks on civilians will drive greater popular support to JNIM, which will present itself as a more moderate alternative. (As of January 9, 2020)

 

[i] “JNIM claims killing 11 Burkinabe soldier sin retaliatory attack in Soum,” SITE Intelligence Group, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[ii] “IS claims suicide bombing, raid on Burkinabe military base in Soum,” SITE Intelligence Group, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[i] “Shabaab claims killing 4 Kenyan Christians in ambush on Mombasa-Lamu road,” SITE Intelligence Group, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[ii] “Accepting heavy civilian casualties, Shabaab takes responsibility for Mogadishu blast killing dozens,” SITE Intelligence Group, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iii] “Shabaab alleges Somali government exaggerated number of civilian casualties, minimized military loses in Mogadishu blast,” SITE Intelligence Group, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[i] “Referencing recent attacks on Western “Crusaders,” Shabaab declares operations will escalate until Somalia “liberated,” SITE Intelligence Group, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[ii] “Shabaab claims raid on U.S. naval base in Kenya, provides photo documentation,” SITE Intelligence Group, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iii] “Al-Qaeda releases inaugural issue of “One Ummah” Magazine,” SITE Intelligence Group, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

[iv] “Shabaab portrays Manda Bay raid as demonstrating American vulnerability, warns U.S. will abandon Kenyan forces like Kurds in Syria,” SITE Intelligence Group, available by subscription at www.siteintelgroup.com.

Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.

The Salafi-jihadi movement, which includes al Qaeda and the Islamic State, made gains and weathered setbacks in Africa in 2019. The destruction of the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate in Syria, the killing of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, and a decline in high-profile terrorist attacks in the West were significant but temporary defeats for parts of the movement. But the movement remains set to expand by exploiting the continent’s numerous governance and security crises in 2020. The West inaccurately sees those high-profile but limited successes, primarily against the Islamic State, as having severely degraded the movement overall, leading to a general relaxation of global counterterrorism efforts. That phenomenon, coupled with the possibility that several large African states that had been pillars of security in the region might fully or partially collapse, offers the Salafi-jihadi movement unprecedented opportunities to expand and gain power in Africa.

In Libya, a battle for the capital, Tripoli, may become a regional conflagration as foreign states—among them the UAE, Russia, and Turkey—deepen their involvement. The current round of fighting, which began when aspiring strongman Khalifa Haftar launched an assault on Tripoli in April, is widening societal fissures and setting conditions for prolonged insurgency that will undo years of counterterrorism progress.

In the western Sahel, security is collapsing and Salafi-jihadi groups are growing more lethal. Islamic State–linked militants conducted their deadliest ever attack on the Nigerien army on December 11, killing more than 70 soldiers in the latest in a series of devastating attacks. A four-fold increase in Salafi-jihadi attacks since last year is causing a massive humanitarian crisis. The Salafi-jihadi threat to neighboring countries is rising.

Salafi-jihadi groups have footholds and opportunities for expansion beyond these areas. Strong Salafi-jihadi groups with ties to al Qaeda and Islamic State leadership hold significant terrain in Somalia and northeastern Nigeria. The Islamic State declared new affiliates in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Mozambique this year.

Ongoing political transitions in large states raise the risk of large-scale instability in regions where the Salafi-jihadi movement is already established. A worst-case outcome in either Sudan (transitioning to new leadership), Algeria (facing the fallout of a contested election), or Ethiopia (approaching a contentious election amid rising violence) raises the possibility of new and major instability that will stoke the Salafi-jihadi threat.

The US and its allies must recognize that successes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have not translated into success against the larger Salafi-jihadi movement. They have had little effect, in particular, on the large and growing components of that movement in Africa. The African Salafi-jihadi groups are poised to present a greater and more challenging threat to the West than the Levant-based Islamic State and al Qaeda organizations if current trends continue in 2020 and beyond.

Below, please find a selection of Africa-focused analysis from the Critical Threats Project team and our partners in 2019. The biweekly Africa File will resume in January 2020. We hope that you enjoy these publications and look forward to continuing the conversation next year. You can always send feedback to criticalthreats@aei.org

 

On the Salafi-Jihadi Movement

  • Beyond counterterrorism: Defeating the Salafi-jihadi movement.” The US must reframe its approach against the Salafi-jihadi movement to sever the movement’s ties to local Sunni communities and offer these communities a viable alternative to terror groups. (Katherine Zimmerman, American Enterprise Institute, October 8)
  • With or without Baghdadi, Salafi-jihadis are winning the governance game.” Salafi-jihadi groups succeed in certain conditions—when communities face such existential threats that they have no choice but to accept Salafi-jihadi governance. Salafi-jihadi groups are taking advantage of exactly these conditions around the world today. Local Salafi-jihadi groups do not remain local but instead underpin the global insurgency, which if left unchecked, will continue to harm Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike. (Emily Estelle, AEIdeas, October 31)
  • Chaos in Sudan and the rest of North Africa threatens all of us. The US administration is turning away from Africa at a time when more engagement is crucial. Northern Africa is undergoing a second tectonic shift less than a decade after the Arab Spring. The worst-case scenarios have one clear set of victors: al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and their Salafi-jihadi brethren. (Emily Estelle, Los Angeles Times, May 11)
  • Practice makes perfect. Why we should care about terror attacks in Africa.” Local al Qaeda and Islamic State branches, such as those in western Africa’s Sahel region, are improving their capabilities in what amounts to local practice for a global jihad. Once these groups win the local “near war,” they will seek to attack Europe and even the US. Defeating or even weakening these groups will be much costlier in the future. (Katherine Zimmerman, AEIdeas, November 8)

 

On the Russian Challenge in Africa

  • Don’t let Russia dominate Libya.” American interests are under attack in Libya, whether we realize it or not. Adversaries and allies alike are attempting to install a dictator. In doing so, they’re undermining US credibility and challenging American leadership of the international order. (Emily Estelle, The Wall Street Journal, December 3)
  • Russia is intervening in Libya. Should we care?Russia may claim to pick up the counterterrorism mantle in Libya, but we should not allow ourselves to be fooled there as we were in Syria. The Kremlin frequently uses counterterrorism as a justification for establishing military positions that serve other objectives, and its approach—enabling harsh crackdowns and bolstering repressive anti-Islamist regimes—worsens the conditions that strengthen Salafi-jihadi insurgencies over time. (Emily Estelle, RealClearDefense, November 13)
  • The Kremlin’s inroads after the Africa summit.” Russian President Vladimir Putin is succeeding in exploiting Russia’s campaign in Africa to support his strategic objectives. (Nataliya Bugayova et. al., Institute for the Study of War, November 8)
  • The Kremlin’s campaign in Africa.” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s investments in Africa are strategic, despite their limited scope and results, and will likely have important long-term consequences. (Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio, Institute for the Study of War, August 23)

 

On West Africa

  • How Ansar al Islam gains popular support in Burkina Faso.” The Salafi-jihadi groups’ under the radar approach masks the breadth and depth of their penetration into local communities and obscures the long-term threat they pose to the region and to the US and its partners. Ansar al Islam’s activities in Burkina Faso demonstrate this phenomenon and show how permitting instability and conflict to fester for years—as in Mali—allows Salafi-jihadi groups to spread beyond the immediate conflict zone to infect neighboring states. (Emily Estelle, Critical Threats Project, May 9)
  • The US is handing over the counterterrorism mission in West Africa to local partners. But to some, those partners are worse than the terrorists.” Retaliatory ethnic violence in central Mali is driving recruits to Salafi-jihadi groups and allowing them to expand across West Africa. These groups have exploited the violence to gain support by promising justice and protection to vulnerable communities. Collective punishment responses by security forces worsen this trend. (Emily Estelle, AEIdeas, March 25)
  • Salafi-jihadi militants target Christians in Burkina Faso.” Militants with ties to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State are attacking Christians in Burkina Faso as part of a larger effort to destabilize the country and take control of Muslim communities. (Emily Estelle and Isabelle Nazha, Critical Threats Project, August 5)
  • The US cannot ignore the Islamic State’s largest African affiliate.” The US is relying on an incapable and distracted partner to combat the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWA) in West Africa’s Lake Chad Basin. ISWA is more dangerous than Boko Haram. (James Barnett, Critical Threats Project, February 4)

 

On North Africa

  • Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will be the winners of the Libyan civil war.” The latest bout of Libya’s multiyear civil war is creating conditions that will allow Salafi-jihadi militants to regain strength in the country. The conflict worsens grievances that fuel Salafi-jihadi recruitment while weakening or distracting local forces that would otherwise fight Salafi-jihadi groups. (Emily Estelle, Critical Threats Project, April 10)
  • Algeria’s future: What follows Bouteflika? The path to a fundamental change in the Algerian system of governance is narrow and hindered by a stagnant economy and an entrenched power structure. Many of the possible scenarios lead to bad outcomes that could create conditions for a future insurgency by neglecting—and likely worsening—popular grievances. (Emily Estelle, Critical Threats Project, April 5)
  • In Algeria, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.” The not unlikely worst-case scenario—the destabilization of Algeria, or even its collapse—would dramatically worsen the Salafi-jihadi threat, open another North African coastline to mass migration to Europe, and send ripples of instability through regions already wracked by conflict and poor governance. (Emily Estelle, AEIdeas, March 11)

 

On East Africa

  • A Salafi-jihadi insurgency could spread to Tanzania.” An emerging Islamic State–linked insurgency in Mozambique may spill into the country’s larger neighbor, Tanzania, risking broader destabilization and the expansion of the Salafi-jihadi threat in East Africa. (James Barnett, Critical Threats Project, November 19)
  • Sudan’s dictator just fell: What comes next?The outcome of Sudan’s political transition has implications for regional stability and the Salafi-jihadi movement in northern and eastern Africa. (James Barnett, Critical Threats Project, April 12)

Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.

The rapid destabilization of the western Sahel is escalating a humanitarian crisis and allowing Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. A sharp uptick in violence in Burkina Faso has displaced nearly half a million people and placed ten of thousands in need of urgent aid. This crisis is caused in part by the spread of Salafi-jihadi groups linked to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which are growing increasingly lethal. Recent counterinsurgency operations by French and local forces disrupted Salafi-jihadi groups for the short term but are unlikely to have a lasting effect as governance and security conditions continue to deteriorate.

The Sahel’s problems will not remain isolated from the US and Europe forever. Salafi-jihadi groups in the Sahel are “practicing locally for a global jihad” and will ultimately bring their capabilities to bear in other theaters. Another mass migration wave, akin to those that have already politically destabilized Europe, is also highly probable.

The destabilization of the Sahel’s northern neighbors makes these worse cases more likely. Algeria, typically a stable bastion in a tumultuous region, faces a government legitimacy crisis that its December 12 elections will not solve. Many outcomes are possible, including the short-term weakening of the protest movement, but political turmoil and unrest remain likely without meaningful reforms.

Neighboring Libya remains mired in the conflict that has made it a hub for irregular migration and a haven for Salafi-jihadi groups. The US has intensified diplomatic efforts to resolve the latest bout of the country’s civil war, but subsequent military escalations and the continued involvement of multiple foreign actors indicates the conflict will likely continue. The fighting is causing increasing civilian harm and allowing Salafi-jihadi groups to regain freedom of movement in unstable areas.

Read Further On:

West Africa

North Africa

East Africa

 

At a Glance: The Salafi-Jihadi Threat in Africa

Updated December 3, 2019

Global counterterrorism efforts are rapidly receding as the global counter–Islamic State coalition contemplates its next steps after destroying the Islamic State’s territorial caliphate and the US shifts its strategic focus to great power competition. The US returned to counter–Islamic State operations in Syria in late November 2019 after an abortive withdrawal in October. Indicators of the Islamic State’s return are apparent in both Iraq and Syria, however, even as the group recovers from the death of its leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other senior officials in late October.

The US withdrawal damaged America’s reputation with current and potential counterterrorism partners and the future of US engagement in Syria remains in doubt. The US administration also seeks to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, a course that will likely be delayed rather than altered by the breakdown of talks with the Taliban. However, the Salafi-jihadi movement continues to make gains in Africa, including in areas in which previous counterterrorism efforts had significantly reduced Salafi-jihadi groups’ capabilities. The movement is positioned to take advantage of the expected general reduction in counterterrorism pressure to establish new support zones, consolidate old ones, increase attack capabilities, and expand to new areas of operations.

The Salafi-jihadi movement, including al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates and allies, is on the offensive in Burkina Faso, on the counteroffensive in Libya, and stalemated in Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria. However, conditions in these last three countries favor the Salafi-jihadi movement rather than its opponents over the next 12–18 months.

Libya’s civil war, reignited on a large scale in April, will continue to fuel the Salafi-jihadi comeback, possibly allowing the Islamic State or al Qaeda to regain some of the territory they controlled before major operations against them from 2016 to 2019. The Islamic State’s comeback in Libya is part of its global effort to reconstitute capabilities after military defeats, an effort that the group’s late leader, Baghdadi, sought to galvanize in a September audio message. Stalemates in Somalia and Mali rest on the continued efforts of international coalitions, support for which is eroding in both host and troop-contributing countries, and on local partners that have demonstrated their inability to govern effectively or establish legitimacy in their people’s eyes.

Amid these conditions, US Africa Command is shifting its prioritization from the counterterrorism mission to great power competition, a move also intended to reduce risk after a 2017 attack killed four servicemen in Niger. US and European powers aim to turn over counterterrorism responsibilities to regional forces of limited effectiveness — such as the G5 Sahel, which is plagued by funding issues, and the African Union Mission in Somalia, which is beginning a scheduled drawdown. French exhortations in the wake of the death of 13 French commandos in Mali in late November may increase European support for the G5 Sahel in the near term. 

The Salafi-jihadi movement currently has four main centers of activity in Africa: Libya, Mali and its environs, the Horn of Africa, and the Lake Chad Basin. These epicenters are networked, allowing recruits, funding, and expertise to flow among them. The rise of the Salafi-jihadi movement in these and any other place is tied to the circumstances of Sunni Muslim populations. The movement takes root when Salafi-jihadi groups can forge ties to vulnerable populations facing existential crises such as civil war, communal violence, or state neglect or abuse. Local crises are the incubators for the Salafi-jihadi movement and can become the bases for future attacks against the US and its allies.

 

 

West Africa

Mali and Burkina Faso

The Salafi-jihadi movement is expanding more rapidly in the western Sahel than in any other African region as communal violence and state fragility spread. The movement’s historical epicenter in this region is Mali. Salafi-jihadi groups are active in the country’s north and have spread to the country’s center, where ethnic-based violence has increased in the past two years. However, the crisis’ epicenter may be shifting to neighboring Burkina Faso, where Salafi-jihadi attacks are rapidly destabilizing the country’s north and east. The violence has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left 2.4 million in need of emergency food assistance. Salafi-jihadi groups seek to drive out security forces and establish themselves as the de facto governing power in parts of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

A joint operation by Sahel countries and France disrupted Salafi-jihadi groups in Mali and Burkina Faso but will likely have only short-term effects. The operation, Bourgou IV, was a response to an uptick in large-scale attacks by Salafi-jihadi groups in the tri-border region of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The unprecedented operation, which involved 1,400 French, Malian, Burkinabe, and Nigerien troops, sought to neutralize Salafi-jihadi logistics and communications capabilities from November 1–17. Troops also reinforced the Malian military camp at Boulikessi, the site of a recent major attack.

Operation Bourgou IV is one of several military responses to major Salafi-jihadi attacks in recent months. The Malian Army withdrew from isolated camps near the Niger and Burkina Faso borders and launched a counteroffensive against Salafi-jihadi groups in central Mali in recent weeks. The Burkinabe military has increased public partnership with French forces despite political and public resistance. Mali’s president has similarly attempted to quell political and publish backlash against the French presence.

French forces suffered significant casualties while continuing counter-ISGS operations in Mali. Two helicopters crashed while supporting combat operations in the Menaka region of northern Mali on November 26, killing 13 commandos. The Islamic State’s West Africa Province, which represents ISGS, falsely claimed responsibility for the incident. (See Figure 1.)

Forecast: French and Sahelian forces will continue operations against ISGS in Menaka, likely forcing the group to go to ground and temporarily shift its operations to Niger and Burkina Faso, as it has done in the past. The AQIM-affiliated faction in this region will exploit a focus on ISGS to advance its grassroots efforts to establish de facto control of local populations in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso in this period. (As of December 3, 2019)

Figure 1. Operation Bourgou IV and Major Salafi-Jihadi Attacks in the Sahel: August - November 2019

Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute

The situation in Burkina Faso continues to deteriorate as intercommunal violence escalates in the east and security degrades in the north. Salafi-jihadi attacks in eastern Burkina Faso have targeted self-defense militias drawn from the majority Mossi ethnic group, sparking *reprisal attacks by these militias against the Fulani population, an ethnic group often accused of collaborating with the Salafi-jihadi groups. An assassination of a local militia leader likely by Salafi-jihadi militants on November 17 prompted militiamen to kill at least 20 Fulani and detain many others. Separately, Salafi-jihadi militants killed 14 worshippers at a church in eastern Burkina Faso on December 1. The increase in interethnic and interconfessional violence is intended to isolate the Muslim communities and in turn induce them to accept protection from Salafi-jihadi groups.

Meanwhile, AQIM’s Sahelian affiliate, Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen (JNIM), is establishing itself as the de facto governing power in Soum Province in northern Burkina Faso. JNIM framed its attacks on security forces near the provincial capital as a defense of the population, a sign that the group is exploiting the poor relationship between locals and security forces. JNIM has also been openly preaching and providing aid to local residents.

Forecast: Intercommunal violence will increase in the next six months and eastern Burkina Faso will destabilize similarly to northern Burkina Faso. Salafi-jihadi groups will gain access to local gold mining, increasing their funding for operations throughout the Sahel. (As of December 3, 2019)

 

 

North Africa

Libya

The protracted battle for Tripoli, Libya’s capital, is degrading security across Libya. The Libyan National Army (LNA) militia coalition, led by Khalifa Haftar, launched an offensive to seize Tripoli in April 2019 and has yet to breach the city’s defenses, even with significant support from Russia, the UAE, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. These states and rivals, such as Turkey, are exploiting the Libya conflict to pursue geopolitical and ideological goals. The civil war will benefit the Salafi-jihadi movement in Libya and has destabilized parts of the country where Salafi-jihadi militants are active, notably the southwest.

The LNA continued its offensive on Tripoli amid international efforts to secure a cease-fire. LNA forces intensified air operations in northwestern Libya in the days following a US Department of State statement strongly condemning the LNA’s offensive and Russia’s involvement in the conflict on November 14. Airstrikes on November 19 struck a biscuit factory in Tripoli and caused further civilian casualties in Misrata, the home city of many anti-LNA militias active on the Tripoli front line. The LNA stated that the airstrike in Misrata targeted armored vehicles and weaponry delivered by Turkey.

The LNA signaled its intent to continue pursuing a military solution by declaring a “no-fly zone” over Tripoli on November 23. US Africa Command reported the loss of an unarmed surveillance drone over Tripoli on November 21. US defense officials stated that Russian mercenaries supporting the LNA may have been involved in the drone’s downing. The LNA claimed to shoot down an Italian drone over Tarhouna, northwestern Libya, on November 20, but Italian officials reported that the drone crashed during migration-related surveillance activities.

US and European diplomats have intensified efforts to bring about a cease-fire in Tripoli. Senior American officials met with Haftar to discuss a cease-fire and curbing Russian influence on November 24. On November 20, the Italian ambassador to Libya met with the head of the Government of National Accord (GNA)–aligned High Council of State to discuss preparations for an international conference on Libya in Berlin, Germany, in Spring 2020. The UN Security Council called on all countries to observe Libya’s much-violated arms embargo on December 2 after a UN report highlighted violations by the UAE and Jordan (on the LNA’s side) and Turkey (on the GNA’s).

Turkey struck an agreement with the UN-backed GNA to advance Turkish maritime and energy interests. The GNA and Turkey signed a security cooperation agreement on November 27 denoting new maritime boundaries that infringe on areas claimed by Greece and Cyprus in preparation for a gas pipeline through the eastern Mediterranean. The “defense pact” also grants Turkey the right to operate in Libyan airspace and territorial waters and build military bases inside Libya. The GNA has become increasingly dependent on Turkish military support, particularly drones, since the LNA offensive on Tripoli began in April.

The national conflict spilled into southwestern Libya over control of oil fields. GNA–aligned forces seized the al Feel oil field on November 27, prompting the LNA to respond with airstrikes. The strikes disrupted oil production at al Feel. An LNA or pro-LNA strike caused civilian casualties in a nearby town. The incident mirrors a pro-LNA drone strike in the southwest in August that killed dozens of civilians.

The Islamic State is benefiting from continued conflict. Libyan militia commanders reported the arrest of eight Islamic State members in Sirte, the central Libyan city that the group controlled in 2015–16, in recent weeks and asserted that Islamic State sleeper cells remain in the city. GNA-aligned militias claimed that the threat of LNA airstrikes prevents them from patrolling in southern parts of Libya, where the Islamic State is active.

Forecast: The LNA and its backers will continue to pursue a military victory even as diplomatic pressure intensifies. GNA-aligned militias in Tripoli may switch sides or strike a deal with the LNA, delivering at least a partial victory to Haftar without greater outside support for his adversaries. Haftar will not stabilize the country, however, and anti-Haftar insurgencies will occur in multiple areas. (As of December 3, 2019)

 

Algeria

Algeria will hold elections on December 12 that will not solve the country’s legitimacy crisis. Algeria’s political situation has been deadlocked since protests began in February and led to the ouster of longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April. Protesters oppose elections without dialogue and are demanding the removal of Bouteflika-era political figures, greater press freedom, and the release of political prisoners. Military and political leaders support elections as a step toward resolving the political crisis. The leading presidential candidates are Bouteflika-era figures and have struggled to campaign due to backlash from protesters.

Salafi-jihadi groups in Algeria ended long periods of dormancy in an attempt to capitalize on the unrest.

  • AQIM claimed a clash with security forces west of Algiers as its first attack in Algeria since February 2018. A November 20 statement from the head of the group’s media department asserted support for Algeria’s peaceful protests and promised to forgo any military action that would jeopardize the protests. The statement called on protesters to embrace armed resistance as a necessary facet of their uprising.
  • The Islamic State in Algeria conducted its first attack in Algeria since 2017. The group clashed with Algerian soldiers in southern Algeria on November 18 and claimed the attack on November 20. Algerian military sources reported that a militant killed in the clashes was the cousin of Sultan Ould Badi, a Salafi-jihadi leader with ties to ISGS and AQIM who surrendered to Algerian authorities in late 2018.

Forecast: The political deadlock in Algeria is unsustainable and will reach a turning point, but it is not clear if this will occur in the coming months or years. The December 12 elections will likely occur with low turnout and establish a puppet government while the military retains control. In one case, violent unrest may occur if security forces crack down more aggressively on protesters or elements within the protest movement take violent action. Such an escalation could set conditions for a full military takeover or an insurgency, which Salafi-jihadi militants in turn would attempt to exploit. Alternatively, protesters’ momentum may be stifled over time, setting conditions for a future legitimacy crisis and unrest. In the most optimistic but unlikely case, the state could undertake substantive reforms that resolve the legitimacy crisis. (As of December 3, 2019)

 

 

East Africa

Somalia

Al Shabaab’s insurgency in Somalia is stalemated, but this stalemate is eroding in al Shabaab’s favor as African Union peacekeeping forces draw down ahead of their scheduled withdrawal in 2021. Domestic political turmoil in multiple Somali Federal Member States is drawing the attention of security forces away from counter–al Shabaab efforts and creating new opportunities for instability that al Shabaab will likely exploit.

US officials believe that an American al Shabaab member is currently the highest-ranking US citizen fighting overseas with a terrorist organization. A US court unsealed a new indictment against Jehad Serwan Mostafa on December 2. The FBI previously placed Mostafa on its Most Wanted Terrorist List and the US Department of State issued a $5 million reward for information on him in 2013. Mostafa joined al Shabaab around 2006 and is currently a leader in the group’s explosives department. Al Shabaab has increased its production of homemade improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in recent years and conducted more IED attacks in 2019 than ever before.

Al Shabaab conducted a rare operation in Somaliland. Somaliland is a self-declared state in northern Somalia that is more stable than the rest of Somalia and has largely avoided al Shabaab attacks in recent years. The group seized a village in a disputed territory between Somaliland and neighboring Puntland State, where al Shabaab has a small presence. (See Figure 2.)

Forecast: Al Shabaab will not seize significant territory in Somaliland but will occasionally attack security forces in the disputed border area over the next 12 months while boosting recruitment from local clans. Somaliland will conduct occasional counterterrorism operations in this area to bolster its image as it seeks international recognition. Somaliland and Puntland will continue to focus their security resources on the border conflict, allowing al Shabaab to maintain its support zone in remote parts of Puntland and eastern Somaliland. (As of December 3, 2019)

Figure 2. Al Shabaab Conducts Rare Attack in Somaliland

Source: Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

Competition between Ethiopia and Kenya is increasing in Jubbaland, a Federal Member State in southern Somalia where al Shabaab maintains its main staging area for operations. The Somali Federal Government (SFG)—the primary US counterterrorism partner in Somalia—has tense relationships with most of the five Federal Member States that is compounded by regional competition. Kenya and Ethiopia have become more involved in a long-running competition between Jubbaland President Ahmed Madobe and the SFG since August, when Madobe *declared himself winner of a disputed state election.

Kenya supports Madobe, while Ethiopia backs the SFG. Ethiopian forces operating separately from the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) are likely responsible for the *arrest of some of Madobe’s ministers in early November. In response, Jubbaland politicians *called for a withdrawal of all non-AMISOM Ethiopian forces. Kenya may be attempting to undermine Ethiopia by increasing its influence in Ethiopia’s restive Somali region. Kenya likely *hosted a meeting between Madobe and a former rebel group from Ethiopia’s ethnic Somali community in late November.

Forecast: SFG and Jubbaland security forces will likely clash in the next three months. Ethiopian forces may attempt to arrest Madobe, which will likely prompt direct but limited Ethiopian-Kenyan clashes. Al Shabaab will expand its support zone in the Jubba River Valley in the event of a sustained conflict between Madobe and the SFG. (As of December 3, 2019)

 

Southeast and Central Africa

The Salafi-jihadi movement has made inroads in southeastern Africa and will strengthen if current conditions persist. A nascent Salafi-jihadi insurgency in Mozambique may spread to its larger neighbor, Tanzania, risking greater regional destabilization. Some militants in Mozambique have *pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and operate under the administrative heading of the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province. Members of a separate militant group active in parts of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) also operate under this province’s heading.

Islamic State–linked insurgents in Mozambique conducted their first reported attack in neighboring Tanzania on November 13. The attack was unsophisticated but is an early warning of the threat that the Salafi-jihadi movement poses to Africa’s sixth-largest country. Tanzania has never experienced an organized Salafi-jihadi insurgency but the country is a refuge and recruiting ground for Salafi-jihadi militants operating in East Africa. [For more on the Salafi-jihadi threat to Tanzania and its regional implications, read James Barnett’s warning update.]

The Congolese military launched an offensive against the Islamic State–linked Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in eastern DRC. Congolese forces *claimed to kill one of the ADF’s top commanders in North Kivu province on November 29. ADF forces have increased attacks against civilians in the province since the offensive began on October 30. Local residents began protesting against the Congolese military and UN peacekeepers on November 24 in response to recent attacks.

Forecast: The offensive will degrade the ADF’s capabilities in the near term, but continued instability in eastern DRC will allow the group to retain sanctuaries and reconstitute over the next 12 months. The ADF will also attempt more high-profile attacks outside of eastern DRC, including attacks against Western interests in Central Africa, over the next 12 months. (As of December 3, 2019)

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